Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure Edited by Patricia A. Matthew
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016, $27.95, paperback
Reviewed by Marybeth Gasman

In an essay for the Washington Post (September 23, 2016), I wrote about the lack of faculty of color in our colleges and universities, claiming that the reason we have so few is because we simply do not want faculty of color. We know how to recruit and retain them, but we do not have the will. Because of the essay, I received more than 7,000 email messages and hundreds of phone calls. The article was shared on Facebook and Twitter at an incredible rate. But I did not say anything that people of color have not been saying for decades. The only aspect of the article that was different was that I am a white woman faculty member at an Ivy League institution. My race and my institution’s prestige made my message palatable to many of the same people who had ignored the voices of people of color.

With these factors in mind, it was a true pleasure to review Written/Unwritten, edited by Patricia A. Matthew, an associate professor of English at Montclair State University who usually focuses on British Romanticism and British abolitionist literature. She decided to pull together Written/Unwritten after navigating a difficult tenure process, during which her provost objected to granting her tenure. Matthew was supported by her department and school but ran into trouble at the provost’s level because several of her publications were forthcoming rather than already published—a distinction that was not made clear to her at any time during the tenure process. As Matthew worked on her appeal of the provost’s decision, she learned that many black women and people of color had experiences similar to hers. Eventually, the president of the university overturned the provost’s decision, and Matthew was awarded tenure. Regardless, she felt the need to share her story and to provide a platform for other scholars of color to share theirs. This need and desire resulted in a beautiful book of vivid and gutwrenching stories told by those who had lived and endured them.

As you read this book, it is important to understand that if you have a soul, it will tug at it, and if you are a white faculty member, you may not be able to move forward in your career without changing the way you think and act around issues that your colleagues of color regularly face. If you can move forward with no change, I beg you to pursue another profession, as academe does not need you anymore!

Written/Unwritten is organized into six sections: “Foundations,” “Navigations,” “Identities,” “Manifestos,” “Hierarchies,” and “Activism.” An introduction and conclusion bookend these sections. Of note, the overwhelming majority of the authors are women of color. Matthew places the voices of these women center stage, where they belong.

Matthew has structured the collection to lead the reader through the lived experiences of the authors. At the same time, readers discover how they can make change—that is, if they are willing to take on the difficult work of pushing against the status quo in the academy. “Foundations” features interviews with two important African American scholars, Houston A. Baker Jr. and Cheryl A. Wall, about race and gender in the academy. Most important to me were their accounts of how the academy has changed—or not—over time. Despite shifts in the student bodies at most colleges and universities, the professoriate has remained overwhelmingly white and male. Faculty are not prepared for or comfortable with teaching the next generation of students and are often too stubborn to realize they need guidance from others who are more expert than they. Moreover, although the academy has moved toward using the language of diversity in faculty search and tenure processes, it has not learned to be truly inclusive and continues to force faculty of color to operate according to rules that preserve white patriarchy. What surprised me most about the interviews is that even though Baker and Wall have lived through decades of racialized experiences, they are still hopeful about the potential of the academy, mainly because of the young scholars entering it.

“Navigations” focuses on the experiences of two women of color, one Asian American and the other Latina. Leslie Bow’s essay, “Difference Without Grievance,” tells the story of the limbo she often finds herself in as an Asian American woman: she is considered a minority by some but not by others. Asian Americans, she explains, are both visible and invisible within the academy—used when convenient to showcase diversity, but otherwise left out. Lisa Sanchez González demonstrates the damage that the academy can do to Latinas, noting the way that senior faculty often sabotage the lives of young faculty of color. However, she also discusses the way these same faculty of color can succeed despite the damage, sharing the story of her own success after sabotage.

Two of the many decisions faculty of color must make as they navigate the professoriate is whether they want to embrace their identity (or identities), and how they will cope with the ramifications of doing so. In “Identities,” the authors discuss the intersections of language and sexuality that some faculty of color confront in the academy. They argue that issues of language are juxtaposed with the securing of tenure, because the granting of tenure is not merit based but deeply rooted in issues of race, class, language, sexuality, and nationality. Queer faculty of color may find themselves taking on additional responsibilities of advising and mentoring both students and other faculty members of color.

The “Manifesto” section of Written/Unwritten is perhaps my favorite, as it is wholeheartedly unapologetic and documents the lack of safety that faculty of color continually feel in both the formal and informal spaces of the tenure process. Sarita Echavez See, for example, discusses the ramifications of not attending a dinner at a senior faculty member’s home. Although attending social events has nothing to do with one’s qualifications for tenure, it somehow factors into the evaluation process, and skipping a dinner with a powerful faculty member can be detrimental to one’s career. Although the academy claims to be a meritocracy built on hard work and intellect, it often requires genuflecting to the powerful.

In “Hierarchies,” the authors critique the false notion that all are equal in faculty governance. Even when African American faculty are invited to the table, they end up eating in the kitchen. In other words, they may be counted in the diversity numbers, but when they ask to be fully included in the college or university community, they are often ignored—or worse, their requests are viewed as out of line, even if they are simply asking for what they deserve as full colleagues. Similarly, although adjuncts—who are often people of color—made up the majority of most faculties in 2017, they continued to receive minuscule salaries, no benefits, and no job security. They are not allowed to vote on governance decisions. The situation creates a caste system within the faculty.

The final section of the book focuses on activism. Because the academy was not set up for faculty of color, many become activists for the sake of their students, their communities, and each other. They may suffer for their activism if their white colleagues start to feel uncomfortable. For most faculty of color, their research is part of their activism, even when the research seems to have nothing to do with the activism. For example, faculty of color working in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields often consider their research activist because their very presence can make a difference in the lives of people of color and motivate others. Moreover, it pushes against stereotypes about people of color and their abilities in various disciplines.

Matthew ends the book with a chapter on the risks of tweeting about diversity. Many faculty of color have taken to social media to discuss diversity and to push against racism, white supremacism, and prejudice in the academy. However, turning to social media can be risky, especially for untenured and adjunct faculty. Tweets and posts last forever, even when deleted, given screenshots and glitches in technology. Moreover, these forms of communication can be taken out of context and used against faculty during tenure and promotion processes. Recently, adjunct, tenuretrack, and even tenured faculty have been fired for their comments on social media.

Written/Unwritten is an important book. It should be read by anyone considering the professoriate, whether or not they are a person of color and no matter what their discipline, not only to gain a full understanding of the experiences of faculty of color, but to understand whites’ role. Attempts to defuse academic hierarchies and systems are not generally welcomed, and administrations and faculty who want to uphold the status quo often retaliate. For the academy to become a place that welcomes all voices, we must be willing to dismantle the elements of it that leave so many ostracized, left out, and erased.

Marybeth Gasman is the Judy and Howard Berkowitz Professor of Education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. She serves as the director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

The Book of Emma Reyes: A Memoir By Emma Reyes, translated and with an introduction by Daniel Alarcón
New York: Penguin Books, 2017, 177 pp., $24.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Marjorie Agosín

Although I teach Latin American literature, when I was asked to review The Book of Emma Reyes, I had no idea who Emma Reyes was. I wondered about the title, and decided that The Book of Emma Reyes must be a historical novel about a Latin American heroine. I wanted to get to know her. The book itself is beautiful. It is slim and elegant, with colorful, abstract design on the cover, elegant type, and sepia-colored pages. In the age of digital books, it is a joy to hold a real, physical book.

Once I started The Book of Emma Reyes I could not put it down. It is not a historical novel but rather an autobiography in letters, like no other I have read in Latin American literature. Reyes’s story of a horrific and abusive childhood is infused with lyricism, humor, and beauty.

As translator Daniel Alarcón explains in his introduction, the publication of this book is a miracle. He has done a superb job of introducing an international audience to Emma Reyes—and perhaps interest in her life and work will awaken interest in other women artists of her time, such as Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington, who settled in Mexico during the late 1930s and lived in relative obscurity until the 1980s, when art historians began to take interest in their work. Like Reyes, Varo and Carrington were painters as well as writers who wrote unconventional autobiographies—Varo in the form of a cookbook of dreams, and Carrington in the fantasy, The Hearing Trumpet (1976). Like theirs, The Book of Emma Reyes will become a classic.

The Book of Emma Reyes was originally published in Spanish as Memoria por encargo (1967) and became an instant bestseller. It consists of 23 letters written over eighteen years to Reyes’s friend Germán Arciniegas, a historian and journalist. Although Reyes meant the letters to be confidential, Arciniegas showed them to the Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez. Reyes stopped all communication with Arciniegas, but later resumed the friendship and the correspondence. According to Alarcón, Arciniegas encouraged Reyes to write her autobiography, but she decided to let the letters become her autobiography.

The letters are not dated, but there is an internal order to them. In the first half of the book, we enter into the sordid conditions and physical and emotional decay of Reyes’s harrowing childhood. She and her sister were imprisoned in rooms without toilets; Reyes describes a door with “three locks, two large padlocks, one chair and two thick wooden bars … that separated us from the world.” There, they would wait until dark, when an abusive adult would come to feed them. Their story may remind readers of Oliver Twist, but it is told without sentimentality or self-pity. Instead, Reyes’s vivid descriptions of the traumatic events of her life are full of lyricism and even humor—an inspiration to readers to live with hope under the cruelest of life’s adversities.

In the second half of the book, Reyes and her half-sisters end up in a convent for abandoned youth, where they remain for fifteen years, until their escape. Even in this religious institution, they endure abuse. Reyes writes, “We came from a world so distant from that of the convent that our adjustment was very slow and difficult.” The children are forced to labor constantly and are often beaten by the nuns. “The work was hard, we had to wash the floors of the chapel, the sacristy, and the tiny room near the front where the priest entered to lead masses,” she writes. Then, Reyes is chosen:

The Mother Superior and Sor Carmelita decided I would be the one to make a robe for the Pope. The only quality the nuns recognized in me that I was the best embroiderer, perhaps because they trained me so young and I knew the secrets of each kind of cloth, each kind of stitching for each thread.

Her later vocation as a painter may have begun in the convent, where she learned to draw in cloth. (Unfortunately, the book does not cover Reyes’s career as a Latin American painter living in Europe.)

After I completed reading this intense and brief collection of letters, which have such a sense of immediacy, I realized they were written by a woman who was illiterate as a child and only learned to write at age fifteen. Because Reyes is so tenacious and determined to learn, she is able to turn her somber experiences around and begin a new life as a painter.

Because of the ups and downs of Reyes’s life, I often thought that this book could fall into the category of the picaresque novel. Her last letter is particularly moving, as she tells of an encounter between two worlds. From her captivity at the convent, she sees the milk man on the other side of the fence. The person who has the keys to the convent falls asleep while praying and thus Reyes is able to escape—although her visionary tenacity has always made her free.

After reading Reyes’s letters I was filled with questions: what happened after her escape? When did she decide to paint? We learn from Alarcón’s introduction that she became a world traveler and befriended the writer Alberto Moravia, the filmmaker Federico Fellini, and other artists, and that she became a kind of godmother to Latin American artists and intellectuals living in Europe, but I wanted to know more. I hope that soon, someone will write a comprehensive biography of Reyes.

This is an important book by a relatively unknown artist who deserves to be better known. It will hold a special place in my heart, as it reveals the persistence of the hope for a better life. Reyes succeeded in her quest, and in turn I have become richer by reading and knowing her. Each of her letters is an act of courage as well as of transformation.

Marjorie Agosín is a poet and human rights activist. She teaches at Wellesley College. Her most recent book is Las Islas Blancas (2016). 

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir By Patrisse Khan-Cullors (with asha bandele; introduction by Angela Davis)
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018, 272 pp., $24.99, hardcover
Reviewed by Susana Morris

The words “Black Lives Matters” come together to form a simple, declarative phrase. It plainly states that Black life— which has been under siege in the wake of chattel slavery, Jim Crow, and Trumpism, simply put—matters. Yet, since the hashtag burst into the public consciousness in the wake of the death of Mike Brown in 2014, the words have taken on an even more profound meaning. For some, Black Lives Matter is the clarion call for a new generation of organizers and activists to resist racism and police brutality. For some, Black Lives Matter rebukes lazy post-racial thinking in favor of a deliberate focus on the how far race relations still need to come. For some, Black Lives Matters elevates one race above all others, for shouldn’t “all lives matter”? For some, Black Lives Matter is the rallying cry for crazed, far left, anti-white “Black identity extremists” who are just as bad as the white nationalists on the alt-right. For some, “Black Lives Matter” reflects the sad state of contemporary activism, in which Blacks are not even seeking power but just basic recognition of their humanity.

For those invested in the phrase Black Lives Matter, it is neither a reflection of the anemic state of activism, nor an example of the violence of the “altleft,” nor evidence of “reverse racism” (which is actually not a thing). Instead, the notion that Black Lives Matter rests on the assumption that if Black lives truly mattered in our society then all lives would, in fact, matter. For when the most historically marginalized people are recognized in the fullness of their humanity then all of us can truly be free.

Although, the term “Black Lives Matter” gained national momentum during the Ferguson protests, the phrase was coined in 2013 in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of another unarmed Black teenager, Trayvon Martin. Three Black women organizers, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Khan-Cullors joined forces in response to the seemingly never-ending cycle of state sanctioned violence against Black people. Since then, Black Lives Matter has become a full-fledged movement with chapters across North America. The Black Lives Matter network identifies itself as a global entity, a decentralized “chapter-based, member-led organization whose mission is to build local power and to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.” This network is just one of over a dozen of grassroots organizations that also come together as the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of progressive groups devoted to supporting, protecting, and preserving Black life in the face of pervasive anti- Blackness and state violence.

In When They Call You a Terrorist, Patrisse Khan- Cullors, one of three Black women who founded the Black Lives Matter movement, traces her life her working class roots in southern California to the organizing and activism that characterizes her identity today. The memoir is in the tradition of Assata Shakur, Audre Lorde, Shirley Chisholm, Elaine Brown, Maya Angelou, and so many other Black women freedom fighters: it illustrates how the personal is in fact the political.

Khan-Cullors’s early life is characterized by a close-knit family beleaguered by poverty. Her mother works 16-hour days for low pay just to keep her family clothed and fed, her father figures flit in and out of her life as they navigate factory closures, addiction, and jail time all the while trying to parent.

While the recent Great Recession of 2008 plunged many American families into financial peril, Khan- Cullors’s memoir is a reminder that for many families of color the 1980s and 1990s were also a time of hyper-unemployment. As a child, one of her favorite forms of escaping this reality is watching the popular early 1990s drama Beverly Hills 90210, which is a sharp contrast to her Van Nuys neighborhood, where the only grocery is store is a 7-Eleven. Unlike the pristine white neighborhoods she watches on TV, police in her community “circle blocks or people… like hungry hyenas.”

Police surveillance and frequent arrests for petty crimes, such as tagging, or for actions that should not be deemed crimes—like standing in public while young, Black, and male—plague her family. Some of Khan-Cullors’s earliest memories involve the terrifying presence of the police patrolling her neighborhood, harassing residents, and targeting her neighbors. The men in her family—her brother Monte, in particular—are repeatedly terrorized by the police. Monte’s story becomes a touchstone in the memoir, as mental illness and the carceral state collide in his life again and again. Monte suffers from schizoaffective disorder, something he is not diagnosed with until he is well into his twenties and already has a rap sheet. Monte’s experiences illustrate the deep failings of the prison industry and mental health; Khan-Cullors notes that “there are more people with mental health disorders in prison than in all of the psychiatric hospitals in the United States added up.” Khan-Cullors’s memoir asks us what would happen if we as a nation focused on providing access to quality physical and mental health rather than the building of more prisons?

Throughout the book, Khan-Cullors explores what terrorism looks like. Despite the fact that neither she nor her comrades espouse or commit violence, they are frequently depicted as terrorists.

There was a petition that was drafted and circulated all the way to the White House. It said we were terrorists. We, who in response to the killing of [Trayvon Martin], said Black Lives Matter. The document gained traction during the first week of July 2016 after a week of protests against the back-to-back police killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minneapolis. At the end of that week, on July 7, in Dallas, Texas, a sniper opened fire during a Black Lives Matter protest that was populated with mothers and fathers who brought their children along to proclaim: We have a right to live.

Despite the backlash, she and her fellow activists press on. In countless examples throughout the narrative, Khan-Cullors rejects the notion that she and others who fight for justice and speak truth to the power of white supremacy are, in fact, terrorizing others. Every detailed account of police brutality and lack of accountability flies in the face of the lie that those who seek to expose and disrupt terror are truly the ones to fear.

The book soars in its ability to make meaningful the phrase “the personal is political.” In her story, Khan-Cullors’s family history of poverty and incarceration is not about individual failings but about collective and systemic ways in which Black and Brown folk are set up to fail. And just as she shares the dark times that shaped her life, so does she share the times of love and laughter that spur her onwards. A progressive high school becomes the author’s lifeline, where she learns that even, or perhaps especially, as a youngster that she can make a difference. Her experiences as a queer woman navigating romantic and platonic love are poignant and unabashed. The prose, though heartbreaking at times, is also poetic and triumphant, formed by the deft hands of both Khan-Cullors and asha bandele, a noted writer and political advocate.

In many ways, the book reads not just as a memoir of Khan-Cullors’s own individual life but as an autobiography of the movement, as its subtitle “A Black Lives Matter Memoir” suggests. This is not because her life is not compelling but rather because Khan-Cullors so convincingly leads readers to understand how system oppressions shape the lives of marginalized folk in similar ways. And the memoir also traces a trajectory to activism that although far from trite feels familiar (see the autobiographies of community organizers from Shirley Chisholm to Barack Obama and you’ll see some of the path that Khan-Cullors follows and blazes a trail for). And, undoubtedly, co-founders Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi could tell similar stories of their path to activism while living the complicated lives that Black women fighting to be free often do. Ultimately, When They Call You a Terrorist is a memoir that tells the story of both one incredible woman and of a generation.

Susana M. Morris is associate professor of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She is author of Close Kin and Distant Relatives: The Paradox of Respectability in Black Women’s Literature (UVA Press, 2014), and co-editor, with Brittney C. Cooper and Robin M. Boylorn, of The Crunk Feminist Collection (Feminist Press, 2017).

Women's Review of Books

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